How do we stop the war in Ukraine?

Last February I had an idea, which was to try to beat Vladimir Putin’s censorship machine. 

Early in the invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that Vladimir Putin is very scared that the Russian people will find out the truth about the war. So he’s censored for news very heavily. 

As well as arresting protestors, he brought in website censorship. So if you go to a news website in Russia, you would find that your internet service provider blocks it. 

I’ve fought dictatorships my whole life, from being a teenage Amnesty member, to getting arrested by Zimbabwean police and helping English students in China to evade the great firewall. And I’ve spent the last 15 years working with charity campaigners and marketers to find new ways to get messages through to people.

So I recruited a team of gamekeepers turned poachers from the advertising industry, to see if we could outwit Putin. I’d already used Facebook advertising to fight Putin in 2014, but we thought we could do something better, buying advertising wherever we could get away with it.

We ended up building a vast criminal (at least under Russian law!) conspiracy, copying many of the techniques used by criminal spammers. And we were joined by over 60 volunteers, with an incredible range of skills.

It turned out to work.

Imagine you are an ordinary Russian, reading a TV website, or sports, or recipe site. You might see one of our ads. You might be intrigued, and click. And if you do, you’ll end up on an independent Russian news site.

For obvious reasons I can’t say exactly how we do this. And I can’t tell you who our volunteers are, because most of them, understandably, would like to stay anonymous. I can’t even tell you who our donors are, because most of them want to remain anonymous. But thank you to the many Lib Dems who have donated, and have helped us raise almost £400,000.

What I can tell you is how many ads we have shown.

We have shown well over 400 million ads to Russians, and around half a million people in Russia have clicked on those ads, and gone off to find independent news. Every indicator we collect suggests that Russians find our campaign useful.

So what next?

We have two aims for 2023. 

Firstly we want to do even more. The leader of the Russian opposition said that western governments should be spending the cost of a missile (say £200,000) a day to advertise real news to Russians. We’re looking for the funding to do this.

Secondly we plan to create a permanent campaign to undermine website censorship wherever it happens. We’ve partnered with Index on Censorship to do this. Index have fought for freedom of speech across the world, starting with the Soviet Union, since the 1970s, so they were a great fit for our campaign.

The good news is that it is very hard to shut down the internet if you are a government, because almost everything runs online in the 21st century. So we are confident we can undermine dictators from Russia to Belarus, Iran to Burma.

What Lib Dems can learn from it

We Lib Dems can learn three things from this campaign.

Firstly, technology can be a powerful tool for building the liberal society that we want. It’s understandable that we are scared of technology abuses when we see countries like China, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to instinctively reject technology.

Secondly we need to recognise that everybody constantly uses the internet now, and, in particular, we all Google everything. So if our local website doesn’t cover everything we put in a leaflet, we shouldn’t be surprised if other parties take the credit for our work.

Finally, we have to be relentlessly focussed on being interesting. If we are creative about our campaigns, then we get noticed, and we reach more people through the media and social media.

Too often our campaigns don’t get enough attention. And if they don’t get noticed, they won’t have an impact. 

Instead we need to work to make them interesting and newsworthy every day. It’s only when they are constantly in people’s minds that we’ll win them.

Our Russia campaign, only run by volunteers, has had close to 30 mentions in the media so far. These range from The Guardian to the Daily Star, and from LBC to the South London Press.

To do this we need to be interesting and find new ways to talk about things. Our Russia campaign has relatively little news, but we still find new ways to get covered after nine months of being around. We constantly look for new ways to talk about it, and new stories that a journalist can use to freshen up the story.

We have bright spots of being interesting as a party, we just need more.

A few years ago I was rung up and asked to take part in a litter pick in Wimbledon.

Our local team asked me if I would dress up as a Womble.

I couldn’t say no.

Passing children were delighted, and their parents, who recognised a Womble, even more. And it got picked up by local media. All for the modest cost of a costume hire.

So this year, I’m making it my mission to get the Lib Dems more coverage, inspired by Russia and Wombles.

===

You can find out more about the Breaking Putin’s Censorship campaign at:
https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/give-russians-real-news-about-ukraine-using-ads

* Rob Blackie was a candidate for the 2020 London Assembly elections. When not campaigning, he advises charities and corporates on digital strategy.

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9 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 16th Jan '23 - 11:39am

    I don’t like censorship, including the fact that I am prevented from accessing Russia Today both on TV and via the internet. I understand that watching programmes about the 2014 ousting of the democratically elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine or about the large neo-nazi membership of the Azov battalion – a para-military unit that was absorbed into the Ukrainian army – could lead to some people seeing the conflict in different terms from the standard Western position we get from all news sources just now. That said, I think censorship has negative consequences and would prefer if our side did not also engage in it.

  • Rob Blackie 16th Jan '23 - 1:58pm

    @mel My sympathies are with you on this. Though TV is very different from the internet, because we regulate it with public service broadcasting rules – and it’s pretty easy to argue that Russia Today has broken those consistently.

  • Jenny Barnes 16th Jan '23 - 3:52pm

    In answer to the headline: Send 100 + tanks

  • The only way to end this war may unfortunately be to escalate. Supply Ukraine with modern equipment including heavy tanks in large numbers. Provide the ability for them to strike targets in Russia. Assist any movement in Russia that calls for Putin’s removal.Even if violent.

  • Rob Blackie 17th Jan '23 - 8:52am

    @Mohammed – Thank you very much!

  • This is brilliant work you and others are doing Rob.

  • Paul Bowers 18th Jan '23 - 9:35am

    As a contribution to reversing Russia’s invasion, I’d see this as laudable but small – tanks, aircraft, missiles are more likely to save further Ukrainian suffering from Russia’s comprehensively illegal and subhuman behaviour. As a contribution to us, I think this is excellent. I’ve been pressing for significant improvements in our use of social media, which lags far behind what successful groups use. Momentum, Farageists, ScotsNats, they move in packs. I’ve been in spontaneous groups of amateur nobodies who’ve had greater impact than some LD social media, & have written a little paper on it – perhaps we could talk?

  • Rob Blackie 18th Jan '23 - 4:18pm

    @Paul – yes let’s chat!

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